Where to travel in 2017

 December means sales to retailers, long shifts to post office workers and lists of recommended destinations to travel bloggers. Big travel sites compile epic lists of all the cool countries you might have not even heard of. Such as this one from Lonely Planet or this one by National Geographic. If you are wondering - "Where should I travel next?" - you are in the right place!

I have no idea which country will have the most convenient transport system next year, which one will get the lowest number of visitors, which one will host the most exciting music festival or which one will be the trendiest. (Ha! I actually do know this one. It seems to be Canada. Again.)

Where To Travel in 2017

What I know about are places which took ME aback. Places breathtaking with natural beauty, amazing urban landscape, unbelievable human-made structures, pumping with the hustle and bustle, chilled out as hell or all together. 

You know, I had a pretty awesome travel year. 

It started awkwardly. I was ill on last New Year’s and so I spent the whole night sipping one terrible bear while watching everyone going to the dark side and then we ended up being shhed about ten minutes after midnight by our Chinese neighbour and colleague.

I started this year teaching rich kids in China and finished this year teaching Tibetan refugees who fled from China. I found myself 18m under the see level and 5416 above the sea level half a year later. I went from scorching heat of Malaysia to freezing winds of the Himalayas. I failed in learning Chinese but took on Nepali with much better success.

Andrea Spakova Japan hat

I jumped off a cliff into a tiny turquoise pool with heart in my throat and found myself in the potentially most dangerous situation in my life when a jeep without driver I sat in started sliding towards a few hundred meters deep drop...

I saw a turtle for the first time as well as some enormous spiders. I hand-fed a deer for the first time. I trekked for 10 days, walked over 120km all with a 15kg backpack. I spent one of the most important hindi festivals with a Nepali family and went on a road trip with my own Czech family. I spent two months at home which is something I haven’t done for the last 4 years and loved every moment of it. 

It’s been eventful.

And so instead of telling you what country is going to be the most fashionable next year, I am going to tell you about my favourite places of 2016. Take it as an inspiration, put it on your to-visit list and start planning. Where should I travel next?

Longsheng Rice Terraces, China

Longji Rice Terraces China

Longsheng Rice Terraces are a complex of rice paddies and traditional villages located in the Chinese province of Guangxi, about 4h drive from the megapolis Guangzhou. The whole place is quite compact, concentrated around several valleys, but you can easily spend a week just exploring all off the viewpoints, hidden villages and bamboo forests.

Why I like it so much

For me, Longsheng Rice Terraces are a perfect compromise between an authentic but developed destination with everything you need as a backpacker starting with affordable accommodation and easy transport. Despite the tourists, most of the villagers just continue doing their own thing, taking care of their fields, animals or children. Although you get a few annoying hawkers trying to sell you souvenirs, most of the locals are incredibly nice and friendly. Actually the friendliest I met in China.

Yao woman long hair sunglasses

Even if people weren’t as lovely as they are, this place is just spectacular and you will feel like in the middle of one of those beautiful rice paddies photographs. And unless you get stuck in the same hotel with a group of loud domestic tourists, you will be amazed at the peacefulness and tranquility of this place. 

The cherry on the cake? Food is fresh, hearty and absolutely delicious using veg and local bamboo shoots or mushrooms.

Moalboal, the Philippines

Moalboal Philippines sea

I know planning a trip in the Philippines can be a pain in the ***. There are so many amazing places but they are spread out all over the archipelago and it can be rather difficult to move between them for cheap. However, there is always a great chance you will find yourself on the island of Cebu, an important transportation hub. Well, once in Cebu city, take a six hour bus to the other coast and settle down in a town of Moalboal for a few days. Dive. Chill. Dive. Chill. Rinse and repeat.

Why I like it so much

This is a funny part, really. Moalboal itself is a hole, the touristy part is concentrated a few kilometres away from the centre by the coast. All of the main hotels, restaurants and bars are squeezed along one muddy street running parallel to the beach — which doesn’t even have sand. Why on Earth would I recommend this place to anyone?

The main part is under the sea. Moalboal being one of the top diving destinations in the Philippines, this is where I took my open water course and fell in love with the underwater world. Conditions are perfect even for beginners and broke backpackers. Some of the water creatures you can see around are turtles and insane schools of sardines just like the ones in Nat Geo documentaries you used to watch as a kid.

There is a video Jack made about our trip around the Philippines. All of the islands we visited were pretty awesome but if you are specifically interested in Moalboal and diving, fast forward to 2:40 :)

After a long day of diving, there is a choice of bars with a surprisingly lively night scene for such a small place and restaurants serving some pretty good Western food (indulging in a burger from the Chilli Bar after my dive was just the best thing ever). You can also pay a visit to nearby Alegria and try canyoneering for a burst of adrenaline. If you do, don’t forget to contact this guy — he is a great guide who knows the canyon like the back of his hand and will give you a great price.

Melaka

Melaka street art young people

Well, technically, I was in Melaka in 2015 but as it was in December, let’s count it as this year! This former Portuguese and later British colonial town is located about three hour bus journey from Kuala Lumpur. I visited at Christmas and couldn’t have chosen a better place. Melaka is buzzing but allows you to find a quiet place, sit back with your mango lassi and watch life passing by.

Why I like it so much

Just like other destinations, it’s combination of a few cool things making me like the place. In this case, it is food, beautiful architecture and laid-back atmosphere.

As there is a great Indian community, you will fall in love with local naans, rotis, masalas, pakodas, samosas and lassis. There are quite a few Chinese restaurants too and you definitely shouldn’t skip unique Malay meals.

Between the food breaks, stroll or cycle around the very well-preserved historical centre while enjoying colourful street art and warm weather. Melaka is like a museum of main Malaysian cultures and you can pop into a mosque, taoist temple or a Christian church within a few minute walk.

It’s best to come outside the main holidays to avoid crowds but even in the midst of the high season, you can find plenty of quiet spots.

St. Andrews, Scotland

St Andrews Scotland coast

I love Scotland. Seriously.

I love the green landscape. I love the mountains. I love the rugged coastline. I love Edinburgh's hip cafes, Abeerden's craft beer pubs and I love Tennents. I love Scottish accent (and feel really proud when people get confused about my bizarre Czech-Scottish accent!) But as I haven’t had so many opportunities to explore Scotland this year, I will mention JUST one place. St Andrews. It’s hard to believe but I visited this lovely little town this year for the first time! It’s an hour drive from Edinburgh and if you don’t have much time, it makes for a great one day trip.

Why I like it so much

St Andrews is everything I love about Scotland. Grey stone buildings, dark cliffs, painfully Scottish green landscape around and rough charm which will make you feel like in Harry Potter films.

St Andrews Scotland Cathedral

Although it is one of the most popular tourist spots in Scotland, St Andrews is still mainly university town full of little pubs (definitely my mission for the next time), hip cafés and hidden bakeries. And you definitely can't miss the local cathedral!

Mikulov & the Palava Hills, Czech republic

Vine grapes

Right, this one is not exactly fair either. Both Mikulov and Palava are places where my family and I used to go on trips all the time. And again, the two times I’ve been in 2016 was both with my family too. The area is located in the south of Moravia, one of the two main regions of the Czech Republic, very close to Austrian borders (hint: perfect starting point for one-day trips to Vienna as you can enjoy Czech prices for accommodation while exploring Vienna during the day.)

Why I like it so much

What’s here not to like? Mikulov is a perfect fairytale town capable of competing with much more touristic Český Krumlov. It's full of charming historical streets and alleys, a castle, a magical view point of Svatý Kopeček and an old fortress, all within a walking distance from the centre. 

Local wine is cheap, delicious and you can try a very affordable wine tasting session in super atmospheric wine cellars, usually conducted by the cellar owners themselves.

Castle Ruins the Palava Hills

The Palava Hills are random looking hills in the middle of South Moravian lowlands with some pretty cool walking trails around it. You hike through dense forests, around steep rock walls great for climbing, vineyards and semi-steppes with unique ecosystems nature buffs will love! You can also explore two castle ruins with some lovely views. 

Just like in Mikulov, villages around Palava are dotted with hotels sometimes offering wine tasting as a part of the package. Cycle, walk, sit around whole day while sipping wine, this is a real Moravian spirit you won’t experience on the Charles Bridge.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Lubljana Slovenia church roof

Destination of our family road trip this summer, Ljubljana impressed me just like the whole of Slovenia. While I didn’t spend enough time  exploring any particular destination, I can 100% recommend Ljubljana. Okay. You pronounce it as [ljuˈbljàːna] and it is a capital of a country called Slovenia (which borders Italy to the north-west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the north-east and Croatia to the south). Stop by in Ljubljana on the way from the coast, on the way to the mountains or while touring old Austrian-Hungarian empire cities such as Trieste, Vienna or Budapest. 

Why I like it so much

Although being a capital of a post-Eastern block country, Ljubljana has gone forward by leaps and bounds, taken what it had and done wonders with it. The historical centre is newly repaired and dominated by not a huge but very nice medieval castle. Local souvenir industry betted on high quality products from natural materials and local produce such as honey, cheese and deliciously fragrant pumpkin seed oil rather than cheap soul-less souvenirs you find in most of other European capitals.

Ljubljana bike street

Ljubljana is also one of the most progressive European cities when it comes to eco-friendly policies from fully pedestrianised centre to sophisticated system of city bike rentals to drinking water fountains (+an app for their location) to city beehives etc. etc. 

Add a pretty summer day, little cafes and outdoor restaurants where you pay ridiculously little in comparison with neighbouring Italy and Austria and you realise Ljubljana is a perfect destination for your next European gateway.

Ice Lake - Manang, Nepal

Ice Lake Mountains Nepal

I’m doing you a service here, you see? By recommending Ice Lake in Manang, I am giving you tips for heaps of other fantastic places as it is located on legendary Annapurna Circuit Trek. Ice Lake is a little bit away from the main hiking trail and most of people visit as a one-day trip on their acclimmatization day in Manang. 

Why I like it so much

It’s not about the lake. It is not particularly big, it's somewhat boring as it’s frozen and has a dull grey-brown colour. It’s more about the experience you get there. You start at the bottom of an arid valley and do several steep climbs before you reach a restaurant run by a super nice guy called Karma. It’s another hour and a half to reach the Ice Lake. Landscape is getting more and more rough, dry and it gets strangely quiet. There are no more bushes, just bits of dry grass every now and then.

Stupa Annapurna Mountains Nepal

Once you reach the last stage before the lake, you will feel the high altitude and it gets really difficult to breath (watch me grasping for air up by the Ice Lake at 8:50 in this video I made about the trek). Vegetation disappears altogether then and you walk over stone and sand path. There are several small stupas and many sticks with shabby prayer flags. 

Come closer to the lake and the only things you will hear will be wind and evil cracking of the ice. I can’t explain my emotional state once I got to the lake very well. It felt very sacred and quiet, like the only thing you should really do there was meditating! I felt eternally grateful for being able to be there. And I mean. Those views! WOW!

Kyoto, Japan

Bikes River Kyoto Japan

Part of the popular tourist itinerary of Osaka-Kyoto-Nara, Kyoto was the first city I visited in Japan. It’s fairly easy to get there from both, Osaka and Nara and I would recommend spending at least 3 or 4 days.

Why I like it so much

Kyoto has everything I love about Japan. Friendly and helpful people, beautiful temples, cultural heritage, delicious food, immaculate cleanliness and perfection in every little detail. You can spend several days just exploring endless temples, museums, historical residential quarters for geishas or sleek modern streets.

The attractions are in an incredibly good condition and even though there are quite a lot of tourist stalls around, they are very tasteful and not disruptive at all. The best way around is on a rented bike you can do all year around (trust me, I did it in February which was possibly the coldest part of the year!)

Japanese Geishas Fushimi Inari Shrine Kyoto

The city is full of cosy cafes, sushi bars, ramen bars and possibly everything you can imagine. Just like anywhere in Japan, no matter if you go for a cappuccino or Indian curry, you won’t be disappointed at the craftsmanship of local chefs. The laid-back atmosphere in contrast with Tokyo and yet an urban charm of a big city in contrast with Nara, Kyoto is a place where I definitely want to return (and if I ever decide to move to Japan, it is very clear to me where exactly!)

The laid-back atmosphere in contrast with Tokyo and still urban charm in contrast with small Nara, made me love Kyoto like a few other cities anywhere!

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer Fort India lit up

I don’t even know why you have been putting up with me until now. This list is so biased! I am in Jaisalmer right now and so I am SO under its spell. This place is located in Rajasthan, India’s desert-like region bordering Pakistan and not far from the state's capital Jaipur (yup, that is where The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film is set!)

Why I like it so much

Jaisalmer is like a fata morgana rising up from sands. The city is dominated by a huge fortress you would not believe is authentic if you just see it in the picture. Once you enter the fort, it gets very real though! Unbelievably beautiful sandstone buildings with intricate stone carvings, narrow streets and alleys, local women in colourful saris, cows wondering around begging for food, intense smells of everything from spices to urine and views all over to Pakistan in the faraway haze. 

Jaisalmer inside of the fort street

The rest of the city around the fort is dirtier and noisier but the architecture is still stunning plus there are some other monuments to explore. It is “real” India with all the hustle and bustle but it is very bearable (…even for me. And I get really frustrated in busy places. Seriously.) Add die-for lassis, decadent sweet shops, delicious samosas and you know where you should book your next flight!

So...where should I travel next?

Now when you know about my favourite places, I want to hear all about your favourite destinations and recommendations! Where should I travel in 2017? :)

Andrea Spakova sitting on beach